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Donald Savage

Headquarters, Washington, DC August 7, 2000


(Phone: 202/358-1547)

Nancy Neal
Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, MD
(Phone: 301/286-0039)

Ray Villard
Space Telescope Science Institute, Baltimore, MD
(Phone: 410/338-4514)

RELEASE: 00-122

HUBBLE DISCOVERS MISSING PIECES OF COMET LINEAR

To the surprise and delight of astronomers, NASA's Hubble


Space Telescope has discovered a small armada of "mini-comets"
left behind by what some astronomers had assumed was a total
disintegration of the explosive comet LINEAR.

Hubble's powerful vision has settled the fate of the


mysteriously-vanished solid nucleus of the comet, which seemed to
disappear after it moved around the Sun.

On July 27, ground-based observers lost sight of the bright


core of the comet and suggested that the nucleus disintegrated
into a pile of dust. Astronomers at the Space Telescope Science
Institute (STScI) in Baltimore, MD, quickly reprogrammed Hubble to
search for the missing nucleus. Johns Hopkins University
astronomer Hal Weaver said he was stunned when the Hubble image
popped up on his computer screen. "My first thought was Hubble
Space Telescope does it again! We caught the fish! This is
amazing, very exciting, very neat."

Though comets have been known to break apart before, this is


the first time astronomers have a close-up view of the dismantling
of a comet's nucleus due to the Sun's heat. Since the 1950s,
researchers assumed comet nuclei were loose clusters of ice and
dust, called cometesimals, held together by gravity. Solar heat
causes the ices to sublimate and violently release gas as
explosions and garden hose-style jets. The pressure of the solar
radiation blows away particles like debris caught in a gale.

Some astronomers think that the fragments now being seen in


LINEAR may be the primordial building blocks of the original
nucleus, the so-called cometesimals, which theory predicts should
be several tens of feet across. The breakup of a comet tells
scientists how it was put together in the first place. The
cometesimals were built up from micron-sized grains of dust as it
collected in the early solar system, roughly 4.6 billion years
ago.

On Weaver's screen were at least a half dozen "mini-comets"


with tails, resembling the shower of glowing fireballs from
fireworks. They were clustered in the lance-head tip of an
elongated stream of dust and an isolated brighter piece in front
of the cluster may be the parent nucleus for the smaller
fragments. Hubble's exceptional resolution and sensitivity allowed
it to reveal the nuclei as separated bodies at a level of detail
never before seen in a disintegrating comet.

Some astronomers find it hard to imagine how an object the


size of a mountain could totally disintegrate in only two weeks.
"Actually, I would have been more amazed if Hubble saw no pieces,"
adds co-investigator Carey Lisse, of STScI. "The comet's breakup
was too violent and fast for it to completely vaporize. How do you
pulverize something the size of a mountain?"

Weaver says it will be important for the largest ground-based


telescopes to try and see the mini-comets as they spread apart.
This may yield further clues on the structure of the original
nucleus and the sizes of the remaining fragments.

Some astronomers believe this was Comet LINEAR's first visit


to the inner solar system, after traveling for nearly the distance
of one light-year (six trillion miles) from the vast comet
storehouse called the Oort cloud. Other astronomers suggest that
LINEAR may have been a fragile piece that broke off of a larger
comet that visited our solar system more than 10 million years
ago.

It's estimated that 20-30 percent of comets are so fragile


they completely disintegrate when they pass the Sun.

The Space Telescope Science Institute is operated by the


Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, Inc., for
NASA, under contract with NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center,
Greenbelt, MD. The Hubble Space Telescope is a project of
international cooperation between NASA and the European Space
Agency (ESA).

Note to Editors: Electronic image files are available on the


Internet at:
http://oposite.stsci.edu/pubinfo/pr/2000/27
http://hubble.stsci.edu/go/news
http://oposite.stsci.edu/pubinfo/latest.html
http://oposite.stsci.edu/pubinfo/pictures.html

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